How to Become a Special Effects Artist

How to Become a Special Effects Artist

One of the most exciting elements in the entertainment industry is the magic of special effects in movies and television. If you’ve ever had the desire to have a career that utilizes creativity and artistic talent, and have the love of movies, this career is for you. Although there are many different aspects of the special effects industry, Pyrotechnics, Miniature Modeling, and Computer Generated Imagery, this article will focus on Special make-up effects and puppetry.

Just how do you get started in a career in special effects?

School? Internships? Believe it or not, most of the talented artists that work in the field of special effects, are self-taught. While there are schools that you can enroll in to learn to makeup effects and techniques (which I will discuss later) there are ways that you can learn the craft yourself.

Read, read, read! Go to your local library and get your hands on every movie special effects, theatrical makes up, prosthetics, casting, mold making, sculpting, painting book you can find. Study anatomy, color, texture, lighting, and movement. There are also some industry magazines dedicated to the field such as CINEFEX, CINEFANTASTIQUE, FANGORIA, and MAKEUP ARTIST MAGAZINE. There are others that may also be helpful like THE MODELER’S RESOURCE and AMAZING FIGURE MODELER.

If you check the back of some of those magazines, like FANGORIA, you may be able to find places where you can get “How-To” videos. Study those books and magazines and keep up on the latest techniques and trends of the industry. Also, get to know the names and faces of the special effects experts and the shops they own. They will probably be your future employers!

If reading books and articles is just not enough to satisfy you, there are schools that do teach the craft. Look into the Art Institute of Pittsburgh or Joe Blasco Makeup Center in Hollywood California, and Florida. While those schools offer different types of education, you can learn the basics of theatrical makeup, prosthetics, mold making, and casting. While it is not necessary to go to school to get a job in special effects, it can help better your skills.

Another thing you can do to educate yourself is to go down to your local zoo and study animals. Take note of the way they look and move. Many times when making movies, special effects artists are hired to duplicate animals. Learn to use a camera and take lots of pictures. You will later use those pictures for reference. After all, that’s what special effects are all about; making the unreal look real.

You can also visit your nearest Natural History Museum. Ask to go behind the scenes and see how the displays are put together and set up. See if you can volunteer or get a part-time job there helping with the dioramas. If not there, look into your local theater groups and see if you can assist with the makeup and prop building during production. I seriously encourage you to help with haunted houses during the Halloween season. Halloween is the special effects artist’s time to shine!

Once you have read a few books, and gotten a sense of what the special effects field entails, take on a little project yourself. Start from the prototype stage and sketch your idea on paper. Then set up a lab in your kitchen or garage and get yourself some basic materials. You can contact Burman Industries and Davis Dental Supplies which are both located in Southern California, and request catalogs. Burman and Davis carry the materials that cater directly to the special effects industry.

When you start working in the field you will find yourself in touch with them often. Be sure to document your steps and results of your work in your lab notebook. This will be a handy reference in the future when working on your next project because you’ll know what worked and what didn’t. Don’t be afraid to experiment! You’ll learn that by tweaking certain elements, it can bring very different results. Don’t worry that your work looks rough at first. Even Van Gogh had to start somewhere.

Try not to linger on a project for too long in trying to aim for perfection. Decide on a finished point, and move on to the next project. Also, this will help you get used to deadlines. Even if you’re a great artist, but it takes you months at a time to finish a simple thing, shops won’t hire you because you’re too slow. Most movie productions have tight deadlines and if you can’t meet those deadlines, it means a lot of money for them and no work for you in the future! Practice working efficiently. If you’re good AND fast, then you’ll be a valuable asset to any shop. Just keep practicing and you’ll get there sooner than you think. Also be sure to take lots of pictures of your finished projects, as you will need to build a portfolio to showcase your work.

While most employers rely on resumes when hiring people, special effects supervisors rely on portfolios. In your portfolio, you should include photos of your best work. Special effects supervisors will still want resumes but they rely more on the photos to see what your skill level is. If you have no experience in a shop, but have great sculpting skills, then you will have a better chance at getting hired than the next guy who may have worked in dozens of shops, but doesn’t have any pictures of any work that he did.

If you include photos of a project that you worked on with other people, then be sure to explain in detail what work you actually did. Never take credit for something you didn’t do. Make sure that the pictures you take are of good quality as well. If your work is good, but can’t be seen because the photo is too dark or blurry, then it won’t be of any good. Set up a nice display with good lighting and take a good picture. After all, the pictures not only represent your work, but it also represents you.

Once you have confidence in your work, you want to start putting together a list of shops so you can start sending out your resume and portfolio. Never send originals of your work. Some shops may return your portfolio to you, but most likely they will want to keep it on file. A good thing to do is pick out 5 of your best photos of your best work, and then make a presentable color xerox sample sheet and attach it to your resume.

So you have a portfolio, but don’t live in Los Angeles or near any city that houses a special effects shop? In order to have better chances of obtaining employment, you need to go where the work is. Unfortunately, if you live in the midwest or somewhere far from LA, your chances of finding special effects work will be minimal if any. The best thing to do is to learn about where the special effects shops are and then try to relocate yourself there.

Although there are some small shops in Vancouver, and possibly other cities, most of the bigger shops are located in Los Angeles, California. Some people do commute by flying back and forth, but that can be quite expensive and not very practical. The people who do commute usually have already established themselves in the field and have many contacts through which to get work. If you’re just starting out, you may not be that lucky.

But if you’re determined and do live far from the work, you can start now and prepare yourself to take on this exciting career. The first thing you can do is to start working and save all the money you can. Most likely you will need money to get on your feet when you move to the new city. You’ll need an apartment, food and possibly a good reliable car. Even though it’s ideal to move based on an offer of work, that usually never happens. You’ll need to establish yourself and start working for little or no money, by starting out as an apprentice or runner.

One of the best ways to get your foot in the door at a special effects shop is to start as a runner. I know many people who have gotten their foot in the door this way. It’s a job where you don’t need much experience and is a very valuable position in a shop. All you need to be a runner is a good reliable car and a map! The nice thing about being a runner is that aside from your salary, most shops will pay your mileage as well, to cover the gas and upkeep of your car.

As a runner, your job will be to pick up materials for the shop and do various runs that are required to keep the shop running smoothly. The best runners are the ones that are most efficient. You must be very diligent at keeping all the money safely with you and bring back the receipts. You must be as timely as you can, going directly to your destination and right back.

The good thing about this job is that when it is slow, and there are no more runs to be made, you can ask to help out in the shop and assist the artists. This is where you must shine. If you prove to them that you can do a good job, then the boss will see your talent and hire you to help out on the next job. Another good thing about being a runner is that usually when a project is over, the artists, like gypsies, move on to look for more work. Usually, the runner is kept on to help clean up the shop, restock the shelves and materials and maybe help with display work.

The special effects industry is a very competitive business. For the few shops that do business, there are hundreds of artists that compete for jobs. However, it’s not an impossible field to get into. If you work hard and are determined, you will find yourself a rewarding career making movie magic.

The special effects industry

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